The Song Dynasty (960-1279 CE) was as the time when painting bloomed. Besides birds and flowers, plants and animals and figure painting, landscapes became an independent topic in painting. The Chinese characters for landscape painting, pronounced “shanshui” (山水), literally means “mountains and rivers”, alluding to the two most important elements in a landscape painting. It had always been a subject in art, but had always played an inferior role until the 10th century, when new concepts arose.
With a mother who was the Emperor Yinzong’s wet-nurse, Mi Fu grew up in the very center of the Chinese empire; knowing the Imperial family and mingling freely among the members of the Song Dynasty rulers. He was a very intelligent boy, particularly gifted in remembering and reciting poems, as well as calligraphy, although he despised formal training.
The Introduction of Personality into Chinese Painting
When the Song Dynasty came to an end in 1279 and foreign Mongol rulers took over the throne, many Chinese officials found themselves banned from court, not being able to make a career as statesmen. Others declined serving under the Yuan rulers (1271-1368 CE) and chose to retreat. Those “yi min” (移民), the “ones left behind”, expressed their protest against this treatment by retiring completely form official business and dedicating themselves to artistic activities. Some painters consciously retreated from social life and obligations and turned to studying Daoism or Buddhism. It was in the Yuan Dynasty when a painter’s own style became more and more important, because it was believed that one could see a man’s character through his brushwork. A painter’s personal style and the flow of his brush were called “xin yin” (心印), “impression of the heart”, referring to an artist’s distinctive style and served as an expression of his character and personality. The main goal for a painter was to express his inner character through painting, taking over elements and techniques from calligraphy. The Four Masters of the Yuan Dynasty are seen as the four artists who were responsible for the change in Chinese painting during the Yuan Dynasty. Although their styles are very different, their way of rhythmically composting lighter and darker washes, combining calligraphic brushwork with simplified depictions of mountains, rocks and trees and playing with different tonalities of ink heavily influenced painters of later generations. If landscapes of the later Song Dynasty were lyrical and romantic, those of the Yuan Dynasty were more subjective and personal, even melancholic, often being representative for the painter’s inner emotions.
When Ni Zan (1301–1374) was born at the beginning of the 14th century, the Mongol rulers had been occupying the Chinese throne for about twenty years. Being suspicious about Chinese officials, they rather employed their own people for high-ranking positions. Many Chinese either refused to serve under the foreign rulers or wouldn’t even get the chance to do so. As for Ni Zan, the latter was the case. He was born into a wealthy family and enjoyed an extensive Confucian education, but never had the opportunity to get a position at court. Contemporary writings describe him as being arrogant, eccentric and over-sensitive, with constant fear of germs and the like. How much of this is true and how much made up rests unknown. In the 1340s, when a disastrous flood caused famines and the Mongol rulers imposed oppressive taxes, Ni Zan gave up his possessions to live on a houseboat and dedicate himself to painting.
Art Becomes Classic – Blurring of Boundaries Between Academic and Amateur Painting in China
The end of Mongol rule and the re-establishment of an indigenous Chinese emperor in 1368 led to a revival of the Imperial Academy and the painting styles of the Southern Song (960-1279 CE) and the Yuan (1271-1368 CE) Dynasties. Some painters picked up the painting style of the Southern Song Dynasty, especially that of the Ma-Xia-School. Others continued the tradition of bird-and-flower painting from the times of Emperor Huizong. Other artists brought colors back into picture and revived the blue-and-green painting style of the Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE). Since most of the Academy painters came from the Zhejiang province, they were named the “Zhe school”. The most notable painter of the Zhe School was Dai Jin. Their counterpart, literati painters from the Wu region in Suzhou, continued in the more expressive and individual styles of the Four Masters of the Yuan Dynasty. They are known as the “Wu school”, of whom Shen Zhou is best known for his eclecticism and ability to paint in the styles of former masters. Although this two main currents in painting existed, the boundaries between academic and amateur painters blurred – not in stylistic terms, but in attitude, mostly when some literati, who had devoted themselves to nothing else but painting, started to accept money for their works, which had been not the case in earlier centuries.